It’s Time to Be Self-ish

It’s Time to Be Self-ish: Nonprofit leader self-care in a time of crisis
By Janetta Cravens, vice president of programs, OKCNP

It’s hard enough for most nonprofit leaders to take care of themselves during stable times. Many of us entered into this line of work because we wanted to make someone – or something’s — life better and there is always someone else’s needs to attend to driven by our mission. Our work is deeply personal and we tend to give our whole selves to it, often overextending ourselves and minimizing our own needs in order to power through and keep things going. Even when operations are running relatively well we admit to the challenges of putting on our own oxygen mask first – as the saying goes – because there are so many other needs that require our attention. We are well conditioned endurance athletes trained to ignore the pains of the race and suppress our instincts that tell us it’s time to stop.

Now we are exercising leadership during the most unusual of times and the mask we have to put on is no longer just a quippy meme. It’s real — and, an actual piece of equipment we use while carrying out our mission to populations that may, or may not, be carrying the COVID-19 virus. Caring for yourself as this pandemic wears on may be reaching its own critical period as nonprofit leaders are sharing how tired they are, worn down they feel, and emotionally and psychologically exhausted they and those around them are. We are also finding energy around creative opportunities born from this pandemic which might have motivated a new direction without the usual resistance. Either way, we’ve been operating at an intense pace – while attending to the kids and the dogs that photobomb the virtual staff meeting and worrying about the health of ourselves and those we love. As the line between professional and personal quickly zooms away, nonprofit leaders have an opportunity to claim attention to the self that we may never before have mastered. In fact the success of our missions may hinge on it. It’s time to be self-ish.

To be clear, I’m not calling for us to be selfish. Or narcissistic. But to be “about the self.” When we coordinate time to have dinner with friends (back when we could still do that) we might say, “come over around 7-ish.” Around seven. Being self-ish is to know what the things are that you need around yourself to be your best version of you. Self-ish is about the self and what the body, the spirit, the mind, and the emotions of a person needs to operate well – and pull those things into the orbit of their daily routines and give themselves permission to use them. When we know what we are about and we are being self-ish.

Most of us compromise what the self needs, but a few of us have learned – sometimes the hard way – the importance of being self-ish. I have a friend, Jenna, who battled an eating disorder for a very long time and after years of the cycles of restricting emotionally and then binging on what she craved, she created new routines around food. If you ate with her, as we often did, she was clear with us about what she needed while around the table – things like, don’t comment on her appearance – and foods that were triggers for her were not served. We accommodated her requests because we wanted her to be her best self and feel comfortable being with friends. Jenna was an example of advocating for what she needed. Few people I know are as upfront about what they need to stay healthy, or as uncompromising about it with others. All of us need to feed ourselves with the nutrition, restraints, and requests, that keep our selves healthy.

Being self-ish isn’t intended to manipulate others into getting what you want all the time. It is about prioritizing what the self needs, and feeding that – before attending to the needs of others. The board will still have their demands, the employees and teams will still have their questions, the boss will still need you to accomplish tasks, and the demands of your home life will still be there. Being self-ish means stepping into that with as much fuel in the tank, and from having gathered as many things around you as you can so that you can survive and thrive.

Here are some of the things nonprofit leaders have shared with me as they discovered their own need to care for themselves in the last couple of weeks. In listening to them and reflecting on my own journey, one of the things we can lay down at the feet of our crammed schedules is the expectation to be perfect. It’s just too much right now.

#1. You are more tired than you think you are. You have had to carry an incredible emotional and psychological bourdon in getting your team, or whole organization to pivot and go in a new direction. The amount of detail you’ve managed, even if you didn’t think you were managing it as well as you might have in more normal circumstances, you handled as well as you could in a time when the world was changing daily. Harvard Business Review’s article named that feeling we may be carrying as grief: grief of letting go or anticipatory grief of what may be coming.
It’s wonderful that technology was there to get our backs and give us new platforms for staying connected, but staring at a screen all day is exhausting and keeping energy up for a virtual meeting so that you don’t “loose the room” takes more effort than it does for in person meetings. Learning is exhausting too – remember how tired you used to get after exams? Or, the way you felt after your first couple of weeks on a new job and you had to learn everything very quickly? You felt tired because your brain consumes a tremendous amount of energy. As a person leading some aspect of your organization, you’ve had to learn new technology, invent new processes, discover how to do virtual meetings, set up new guidelines for operations, drip more communication more frequently to a boss or a board, and learn what an SBA loan is and what PPP stands for. You’re tired. Rest.

  • What can you do to ease up the pressure? Does your work day have to start at 7:00 a.m.? or even 8:00 a.m.?
  • Rest. Sleep. Really.
  • Limit Zoom meetings to no more than 4 per day or 4 hours per day, if you can.
  • Establish new communication habits and boundaries with your team. I know we all used to check email on the weekends. Is that what we need to be doing now? Maybe we don’t schedule any lunch meetings so that everyone can eat and move or attend to something at home.

#2. Stand it up – Give it up. Now more than ever your leadership is about mobilizing people to make progress on hard problems. As new systems and processes are put into place to narrow the lag time between identifying what those problems are and what actions are needed to solve it, leadership may be about empowering others on our teams to follow through with the details we just can’t manage right now.
Stand up the new process, the new program, the new vision then give it up and turn it over to the people to make it happen. It may be time to see your success as a leader, not by what you can personally accomplish but what you can accomplish through other people. Leaders who want to be in control of every detail of the process and know what is going on at all times are going to be challenged to do that in this season – but the reward is that it shares the responsibility and accountability more broadly across the agency. Revisit what success means. Industrial psychologists that have been studying work from home productivity know that employees are often more productive when they work from home, even if they work fewer hours. There may never be a better time to turn over the reigns of new goals to team members who are in a position to actually accomplish more.

  • Establish new business hours for the agency, or give members of the team – and yourself – permission to establish “office hours” when they are available to others or establish times when they are unavailable.
  • Trust your team and turn over the reigns. Establish the “what” but let go of the “how.” Sometimes its good to get out of their way.
  • Recognize that you and your team are a finite resource – so help them narrow their focus to goals that need to be accomplished right now. Some old projects may need to wait in the wings as new responses took center stage. There is also a lot scrapping and revising work as we respond to a situation that is changing daily. Work with your team to establish what can be reasonably accomplished.

#3. New Habits Start Hard: It’s impossible to start new habits until we have a vision for a new normal. Across the sector, leaders report that their new year’s resolutions/Lenten disciplines/promises to self evaporated in the current climate. Forty-eight hours after the Thunder cancelled their game – which was our state’s barometer for when this storm got real – we reached for whatever we normally reach for to comfort our rising anxiety. We may have wanted to cut back on smoking, or do more yoga, or start a daily exercise routine, but we coped with the stress with the coping behaviors that worked for us in the past, not the new habits we were trying to form.

Stress does not generally make things better. People exhibiting stress responses do not have the bandwidth to design new strategies and behaviors for themselves. A person has to achieve a certain level of well-being before they can apply the energy and effort to develop new strategies for their behavior. This seems to apply to yoga practices, mental health, dieting and exercise, and bridges out of poverty.

  • Go easy on yourself while also trying to gather the things around you that your self needs. It may be hard right now to start new practices. Lighten up on yourself.
  • Make a list of the things that feed your soul and give you energy and make time to do them.
  • Recruit a support system to help your effort. Now more than ever there are virtual classes, support groups, counselors, and professionals that can support your new habits. Seek support from partners, besties, family, and colleagues too.

#4. You’ve been operating out of your stress behaviors. And so has everyone else. That thing that someone said to probably wasn’t meant as personally as you took it. That appreciation that you want for all the hard work you’ve put in, but haven’t yet received, doesn’t mean someone doesn’t think you’re doing a good job. When we are stressed, Dr. Kim Leveridge on our staff says that people have three coping mechanisms: move away, move toward, or move against.

In moving away, we just don’t reply to that email. Maybe we don’t know what to say. Or the boss asks for that one thing that you just can’t right now so you don’t. Moving away may protect our energy reserves, but it also means disengaging when it might have mattered the most which can frustrate those who are relying on us. In moving towards we lean in. Maybe we ask for more information, or check in, again and again and again, or follow up immediately — like calling 2 seconds after I sent you that email to ask if you got that email. Moving in feels like controlling or exhibiting a “high need to know” to the person doing it, but to others it comes across as micromanaging or perfectionistic. In moving against we go a different direction than the group. This often looks like asking the hypothetical questions in a scenario that can never be solved when the rest of the group is trying to plan. Moving against feels like ensuring that we are “thinking of all the things” to the person doing it, but to others it comes across as antagonistic, even obstructionist, and often like they aren’t getting on the same page with the rest of the team.

Knowing that you’re experiencing someone else’s stress behaviors might help you put it in its right perspective. And help them understand you when they see yours.

  • Ask — What’s the information you need? What can I get you that would give you peace of mind? What answer do you need? – when you see someone moving toward.
  • Ask — Hey, where’d you go? — when you see someone moving away. Follow up with them and check in if they are physically removing themselves or disengaging. Be clear with how you need them.
  • Ask — What’s concerning you? What is the fear/anxiety driving your questions? – when you see someone moving against.
  • Ask for forgiveness when you need it.

Queen Elizabeth said in her address to the United Kingdom, “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.” For some of us, that may require being a little more self-ish.

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OpEd: Helping Nonprofits Weather the COVID-19 StormJanetta Cravens